EU and UK trade barbs as Northern Ireland Brexit row intensifies

LONDON and DUBLIN — Britain accused the EU of failing to show “flexibility” in a post-Brexit row over trade rules in Northern Ireland — as Brussels warned London that taking unilateral action risks the region’s access to the EU’s single market.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss spoke by phone Thursday as the U.K. mulls a domestic law allowing it to ignore parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of the Brexit deal that has the status of an international treaty.

London has argued that the arrangement is causing unnecessary trade disruption and political instability in Northern Ireland.

But Šefčovič warned in a statement following the call that unilateral action against the protocol will not only destroy trust between the EU and the U.K. and damage stability in Northern Ireland, but would “also undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods.”

“I am convinced that only joint solutions will work,” he said. “Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the Protocol, is simply not acceptable.”

Šefčovič told his British counterpart that “there is still potential to be explored” in the EU proposals, and that Brussels is still waiting for a response from the U.K. to its plan for intensive talks proposed to the British government in February.

Truss meanwhile expressed “regret” at the EU’s stance, according to a U.K. government readout, which said Brussels was not willing to broaden Šefčovič’s negotiating mandate or consider fresh alternatives.

She warned that the situation in Northern Ireland “is a matter of internal peace and security for the United Kingdom, and if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act.”

Britain and the EU have been engaged in talks over the way the Northern Ireland protocol works since Britain left the bloc.

The arrangements are designed to prevent a politically sensitive hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a way that causes minimal disruption to businesses shipping goods to the region from the rest of the U.K. But the main unionist party in Northern Ireland is refusing to form a regional executive unless the protocol is scrapped, arguing that the set-up drives an unnecessary wedge between the region and the rest of the U.K.

Truss argued the protocol had become “the greatest obstacle” to forming a new executive in Northern Ireland following last week’s elections there.

‘EU willing to go further’

In Dublin, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney dismissed Truss’ claims of EU inflexibility as fiction. He pointed to the comprehensive nature of the EU’s blueprints for reforming the protocol’s operation published in October and Sefcovic’s emphasis since then that those proposals should represent a starting point for negotiation, not a fixed conclusion.

“The EU is willing to go further,” Coveney told RTÉ radio.

The October plans weren’t the European Commission’s “final call,” Coveney said. “They could potentially go beyond that if the British government would work with them in partnership. The rhetoric from the British government in the last number of days paints the EU as a body that’s inflexible, that doesn’t have a mandate for change or compromise or flexibility. That isn’t reflective of reality.”

Coveney said EU nations all want a compromise with the U.K. that requires far fewer EU checks on British goods staying in Northern Ireland, versus those goods crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU market.

“But we’re not going to do it under the threat of British government language and briefing of the media which says: If the EU doesn’t give us everything we want, well then we’re going to legislate ourselves to override international law,” he said.

Šefčovič is expected to make an address later Thursday at the first meeting of the EU-U.K. Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in Brussels.

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